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Kentucky Public Radio Voter Guide: Agriculture Commissioner

On left man standing with arms cross in outdoor environment. On right woman in blue suit inside with brick wall background.
Republican candidate for agriculture commissioner Jonathan Shell and Democratic candidate Sierra Enlow.

Kentucky's agriculture commissioner promotes farming and horticulture and is also in charge of inspecting about 60,000 gas pumps across the state.

Current GOP Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles term-limited. Former GOP state Rep. Jonathan Shell is facing economic development consultant Sierra Enlow in the race.

Man stands with crossed arms, blue shirt in outdoor setting.
Former GOP state Rep. Jonathan Shell.

Jonathan Shell


Age: 35

Residence: Garrard County

Occupation: Farmer

Previous elected/government experience: State Representative (2013-2019), Kentucky House of Representatives Majority Leader (2017-2019)

Campaign website: shellforky.com

Shell was interviewed for this voter guide. Excerpts are included below.

Why are you running for office?

“I'm a fifth generation farmer, it's what I've done my entire life. You know, farming is all I know. You know, that's what my family's always done. It's what I grew up doing and you know, farming just kind of in my blood and what we do here on the farm. We raised cattle, we raised several 100 head of background heifers, we do cow-calf pairs as well. And we've got flower greenhouses. We're about two acres under roofing greenhouse. We do hanging baskets, bedding, plants, those kinds of things that you put in front of your house. And then we do corn and hay to feed the cattle. And then we also got into the pumpkin business about two, three years ago.”

“Back in 2012, I ran for state house. And in my district, it was an open seat. And we ran and won a very competitive primary and ran and won a competitive general [election]. I had grown up listening to my granddad and my dad talk about politics and the way things should be. I just looked around one day, and I was married and was starting a family and looked around and didn't see things going the way that I thought they should, and started talking about it up at the gas station, actually, with all the old farmers that set up there and eat lunch, and I was complaining, just like they were watching the news. And I'd beat my fist on the table, just like they would complain about things. And one day they looked at me and said, ‘why don't you do something about it?’ And, you know, I had to look around and say, ‘Why don't I do something about it?’"

What's the ag commissioner do? Why should voters care?

“The Department of Agriculture, what people don't realize is, it's probably one of the offices that touches the most amount of people in the state of Kentucky on a daily basis. The interesting thing is, it's probably the largest regulatory agency in the state. It has dominion over the gas pumps of… whenever a gas station sells you a gallon of gas, that they're guaranteeing that the quality is good, and that it has a gallon of gas, that it's not 1.1 gallons or .98 gallons, it's a gallon. And we've got great employees at the Department of Agriculture that work very hard to make sure that they're doing their jobs correctly, and not trying to just penalize people, but actually get them on the right track and doing things the right way for public protection and consumer protection issues. It deals with things like bounce houses and, and zip lines, and just various other things [like] pesticide regulations and all the stuff that you would imagine in agriculture. But it does touch everyday Kentuckians probably more than any other government office.”

“And so it has a large role in actually regulating a lot of the things that people sometimes take for granted that somebody does, and there's great employees there that work diligently on a daily basis. Outside of those things, when I think of the Commissioner of Agriculture in the department, I think of it as the voice for rural Kentucky. It's the voice for agriculture, the voice for agribusiness. And when I look at it, I see it as being, you know, that mouthpiece for what we need in the state in agriculture and in rural Kentucky.”

What are your priorities for the office?

“[One of the] main things that I want to focus on outside of the normal duties of the office that are going to happen is looking at the infrastructure in the state, from an agriculture perspective, because agriculture is economic development. Whenever you think about rural Kentucky, and places like where I live in Garrard County, agriculture is a large piece of the economy. And sometimes, it gets overlooked in that vein. So looking at the infrastructure that we've gotten the state to ensure that we've got the markets available, the greeneries, the meals, the processing facilities, and going beyond that to secondary manufacturing, around agriculture, to where that we're getting more finished products in the state. And we've done a good job of that in certain areas. But we need to do a better job. And that's going to be a priority focus of mine.”

“One thing that I do think is interesting that I think that we've got to get a handle on in this state is just being healthy. And a healthy Kentucky is going to be a strong Kentucky and so making sure that we're getting fresher, more local, more directly. Nutrition into people's bodies, is going to be extremely important priority for myself. You know, when I look at the farmers markets across the state, when I look at our hospital and our health care industry as a whole, and then look at some of our more vulnerable populations in the state that are on Medicaid and food stamps, and even our senior citizens that are on Medicare. I think that there's a way that we can start looking at this differently from a health outcome perspective. Because when we get fresher foods, more healthy foods into people's bodies earlier, then we're going to save more on the backside from heart disease, diabetes, and other things. And so making Kentucky healthy is going to be a priority focus of mine to give people the information and then also to try ain't give them the resources to be able to do that on their own. And that's also going to be another priority.”

What would you do to support the Kentucky Proud program?

“Kentucky Proud is such an amazing program. And Commissioner [Ryan] Quarles has done a great job of it. But something that I want to put more of an emphasis on is our international trade. And not necessarily just with Kentucky Proud products, but looking beyond that to maybe genetics and our cattle and our livestock and our animals. And looking towards more bulk items that may be able to be exported across the world from Kentucky.

“When you think about Kentucky — and you're from China, or you're from India, or you're from the European Union or somewhere else — most of the time, they know Kentucky for agriculture because of Kentucky bourbon, because of Kentucky racehorses, and because of Kentucky Fried Chicken. We've got a great brand. When people think of Kentucky, they think of it in a positive way. And so being able to capitalize on that for more trade across the world, I think is something that's going to be extremely important moving forward, because we're no longer in a bubble. You know, it's not just about local markets here in the U.S. It's about international trade. And I think that that's a way that we can expand those opportunities.”

Why should Kentuckians vote for you?

“I'm experienced not only in agriculture, but also in policy and government. Looking at the relationships that you have to build to be able to be successful, in both of those arenas, I've got them currently. And you're not going to find [a] harder work ethic than what I feel like I bring to the table.”

“You know, I tell people all the time that I may not be the smartest person that you're going to meet, I may not be the most talented, but I'm a convener of those people. I want those people to be in the room. I want to get those people together so that we can talk about it. But I will tell you this: I am going to be one of the hardest workers that you'll ever meet. And I want to be able to work on behalf of Kentucky agriculture, rural Kentucky, and the citizens of this state to be the best Ag Commissioner that I can be.”

Woman stands with blue jacket in room with brick wall background.
Sierra Enlow

Sierra Enlow

Age: 35

Residence: Larue County

Occupation: Economic development consultant

Previous elected/government experience: None

Campaign website: sierraenlow.com

Enlow was interviewed for this voter guide. Excerpts included below.

Why are you running for office?

“I am running for office because I think that there's a lot of opportunity to continue to grow the Agriculture Commissioner's office, not only for Kentucky farmers, but for all of Kentucky. My background is in agricultural economics. I grew up on a fifth generation family farm in Larue County and have been working in agriculture most of my life. I did my master's degree at UK while I was working for Cooperative Extension and for the USDA, and then I've been working in economic development since my work in agriculture and politics. And so I’m excited to bring that experience to the commissioner of ag office. One of the things that I always tell people is that you need two things to be a successful Commissioner of Agriculture: you need production agriculture experience and business experience. And I'm looking forward to bringing both of those to this position.”

“I've always been committed to community service and public service. And I grew up in a family that was really committed to that concept. And, you know, in Larue County, I know how important it is for people to be active in their community and be engaged. And, you know, I've always done that even from a very early age. I've always been really committed to community service and to public service and making our communities better. And that's really why I wanted to pursue economic development as a career, is because it was an opportunity to make communities better. And I'm hopeful that …I'll get to continue that mission and public service, particularly as it relates to this office.”

What's the ag commissioner do? Why should voters care?

“The office really does impact every Kentuckian. And as we're looking at this office, you know, it has a lot of responsibility for production agriculture in the state. So you have an ag commissioner, who's really going to be focused on how we promote production, agriculture, and increase our farm capacity, and our ability to generate revenue on Kentucky farms. The ag commissioner also does everything from imports to exports, and working with bringing new products to Kentucky and exporting our products, to monitoring the play places at Chick-fil-A and McDonald's restaurants across the state. So there's a lot of responsibility in this office that is not just production agriculture. And you know, when you think about a mom in Louisville, and Northern Kentucky, who is really concerned about getting healthy food for her children and making sure that there's safety at their amusement park rides and recreational facilities, it’s really important for that mom to think about who she wants to take as her candidate for this race.”

“We've been talking to a lot of urban audiences about this race because it's honestly the race a lot of people forget about in Kentucky because it's not typically top of mind. And it's a really important race, because it really does impact every Kentuckian. In a lot of ways, it's kind of like your mom in Kentucky politics, where it takes care of everything that you didn't know needed to be taken care of so that your day runs smoothly. And so, I like to remind people that this is a really important race and not one that we need to forget about because it's at the bottom of the ballot.”

What are your priorities for the office?

“My main focus when I get into office, it's going to be bringing that economic development background to the office, and making sure that we have better markets for Kentucky farms. There's a lot of work to be done on the space between a farm gate and a corporate boardroom. And, you know, that's something that it's important that we have someone who has that economic development experience to bring to the office.”

“You know, anytime that we bring a new crop, whether it's medical, marijuana, hemp or any other new opportunity for Kentucky farmers to do them, we have to make sure that we're building the market around that. And we have to make sure that we are really putting together a good opportunity for those farmers. Because it's not just enough for them to grow that crop — they have to be able to sell it and make a profit on it. Because we want to keep our rural communities strong. And we want to make sure that they have good opportunities. And you know, that really starts with having someone who can advocate for them.”

“I really think that, you know, once we get into this office, I want to spend some time focusing on how we make it better for Kentuckians, and how we get out the message that the Commissioner of Agriculture does a lot for every Kentuckian and not just for Kentucky farms. That's really what I'm going to be focused on for the next four years, if elected, is making sure that we're delivering results.”

What would you do to support the Kentucky Proud program?

“I think that there are some ways that we can promote Kentucky crops that we haven't been promoting. I think that the Kentucky Proud program is important, but I think that there's also good opportunities, because we are, you know, we're strong economic development state. We have a lot of food manufacturers here. I think there are a lot of opportunities to connect those types of businesses with Kentucky farmers, so that we're getting the real value add on a corporate scale for our Kentucky farms.”

Why should Kentuckians vote for you?

Answer: “I think that one of the things that we see is that, particularly as I've seen on the campaign trail, is that I've consistently tried to show up on the campaign and show up and meet with farmers and meet and interview with different agricultural groups. I mean, really be there for the communities that I'm looking at representing. I'm looking forward to doing that once I get into office and really going to fight for them. I think that that's something different that you've seen from my opponent. And so I think it's really important that people have the opportunity to elect an Ag Commissioner that's going to show up for them.”

“The way I look at it is that this is like winning any other client, I would in my consulting business. I have objectives that I want to deliver on, for the constituents that are voting for that. And I'm really looking forward to spending four years focusing on that, to make sure that we are delivering results for all of Kentucky and not just for a few people in Kentucky.”

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